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USBC 2016


Thirty-six coffee professionals from around the country participated in the United States Barista Championships in Atlanta last weekend (April 14–17), a competition presented by the Specialty Coffee Association of America and the Barista Guild of America. Lemuel Butler, Counter Culture Coffee wholesale customer support and barista trainer in Durham, NC, won first place and was crowned the 2016 U.S. Barista Champion. This the first national win in Butler's decorated coffee career during which he has won five Southeast regional championships (2005, 2007, 2010, 2012, and 2014)—the most of anyone in competition history. Lem will go on to represent the U.S. in the World Barista Championship in Dublin this year, June 23–25. Lem has been an integral member of Counter Culture's team in Durham since 2007, training countless baristas and staff in coffee excellence and forging relationships with chefs, cafe owners, and members of the industry.

Samuel Lewontin, general manager and barista at NYC's beloved Everyman Espresso, placed fourth in the Barista Championship using Counter Culture coffee. This year, 10 baristas competed using Counter Culture coffees, with Lem and Sam making it to the finals.

At the Barista Championship, baristas competed in front of four sensory judges, two technical judges and one head judge as they prepared and served four espressos, four cappuccinos and four signature espresso beverages during a 15-minute race against the clock. Lem competed with Finca Nuguo, a Gesha variety coffee from Jurutungo, Panama, with big floral notes of jasmine, lime tartness and tropical fruit sweetness, that was roasted by Counter Culture's Kyle Tush. Each competitor's signature beverage is notably the “canvas” of the competition, where baristas show their creativity and innovation. Lem called his drink "SouthernPlayalisticCadillacCoffee," a spring-y ode to his southern roots and the Outkast album that first inspired his love of southern hip-hop, comprising Finca Nuguo espresso, magnolia flower simple syrup, hibiscus, lemongrass and nitrous oxide (for creaminess), served elegantly to judges in beer snifters. Lem's beverages were accompanied by an earnest presentation about specialty coffee's effects on his life and what he will give in return.

"Twelve years in this industry has done so much for my family and me, and now I'm asking myself, 'What will I give back?'" Lem said. "I never fathomed that I'd be representing the U.S. at the World Championship, but beyond that I want to inspire others to perfect this craft, to keep competing and never get discouraged."

"We are so happy for Lem's well-deserved success,” said Counter Culture President and Co-Founder Brett Smith. “He epitomizes how perseverance and hard work pay off and has led the way for so many in this field to push their limits.”

Counter Culture first received an unsolicited bag of green coffee from Finca Nuguo's farmer Jose Manuel Gallardo Mendez in November 2014. Roaster Kyle Tush and Coffee Buyer Tim Hill worked with Jose to refine his processing and quality and in a year's time produced what Counter Culture called “simply the best coffee we sold in 2015.” The particular lot of Finca Nuguo that Lem brought to the US Coffee Championship is a tribute to what can happen through collaboration, dedication and patience—values Counter Culture has been committed to for the past two decades.

Sam competed with a coffee grown by Tito Raúl Quelal in Nariño Columbia that was roasted by Counter Culture's Kyle Tush. Sam credited the farmer Don Tito's washed processing and sun-drying for the coffee's “exceptionally sweet,” “enhanced acidity” and “sparkingly clean” flavors.

The top 12 baristas from a qualifying round held in Kansas, MO, in February earned a first round bye at the US Barista Championship tournament. Open to the public and free to attend, the event also hosted opportunities for attendees to learn more about the world of specialty coffee and to taste coffee from roasters nationwide.



POSTED IN: coffee, Durham
Our company meeting in August 2015!We were first introduced to the Durham Living Wage Project back in May during our 2015 Sustainable Spring event series. Our support team was asked to find businesses or organizations in their communities doing inspiring work in sustainability and invite them to speak at our training centers. Our team here in Durham invited Lindsay Moriarty and Rob Gillespie from Monuts Donuts to speak, and, I must admit, I was a little skeptical. I'd heard about Monuts long before moving to Durham—they're a local favorite here—but I wondered what they would have to say aside from some tips on running a restaurant sustainably. Instead, I was awesomely surprised when Lindsay and Rob focused their presentation on the Durham Living Wage Project and introduced me to an aspect of social sustainability that I hadn't previously considered.

A living wage is the amount of income needed for one person to meet their basic needs without public or private assistance. The North Carolina minimum wage is $7.25/hour, for example, while the living wage for Durham, calculated by the city using a methodology tied to the federal poverty level, is $12.53/hour. To put it another way, that's the difference between earning $15,000 a year and $25,000 a year. The Durham Living Wage Project is a voluntary program that local businesses can join to certify that they pay all of their employees at least $12.53/hour. The minimum is $11.03/hour for employees with employer-provided health insurance or where employees are reimbursed for at least 50% of their cost of health insurance.

After spending many years on the front lines of the service industry in DC, I left Monuts' presentation thinking, "That's so cool! I wonder if most of my friends in the DC service industry get paid anything near the living wage for that region?" I was also feeling a bit guilty that I couldn't leave the presentation and say, with any degree of certainty, that Counter Culture paid a living wage. As a company, we talk a lot about projects we support at origin and ways we're working to reduce our environmental impact, but what if we weren't even paying our own employees a living wage? To say that's not sustainable is an understatement.

To my relief, I looked into the certification more, found out that we do meet the Durham Living Wage Project's requirements and joined the project. The whole process taught me two things about sustainability: Never stop digging into your company's own practices, and always look to other businesses for new ideas. Without Monuts, I'm not sure if the Durham Living Wage Project would have appeared on my radar, and I'm grateful to them and other certified businesses in Durham for setting such a good example for us to follow.

Meredith Taylor
Why transparency? If we had to pick a one-word answer: "authenticity." In the last post, I talked about why I think reporting is so important and what we have planned for the future of our own reporting. As I dived into planning for the upcoming 2014 Transparency Report with our coffee and marketing teams this week, I was asked a really important question by both teams, "What are we trying to convey with this report?" It's a fair question and one that I think merits some consideration.

I came across an article from a sustainable business news site this week titled something like, "Would You Want to Read Your Company's Sustainability Report?" Again, a fair question and a good call out against the multi-page, text-heavy reports that no one—including people who work for the company—usually reads.

So why is transparency important to us at Counter Culture? And how do I create a report that conveys the answers to that question in a clear and engaging way? For me, the first and most important step is to consider the audience. I'm not compiling a transparency report so that sustainability managers at other companies can look at and be impressed; my primary audience is our wholesale customers and coffee consumers who want to know more about our coffee.

Why transparency? If I had to pick a one-word answer, I would say authenticity. We work hard to build relationships in our supply chain, not only because they help secure our supply, increase our quality, and improve our sustainability, but also because they facilitate an information flow among participants throughout the buying process that's far from the norm. If we know a lot of information about our coffees, why not pass that on to our consumers? I won't pretend that a few transparency reports are going to cause a huge shift in consumer demand, but I think we owe it to our consumers to give them as much information as possible and to put that information into context so that they can make more-informed decisions about buying coffee. If we want to improve the sustainability of coffee supply chains in general, sharing information—both with other companies and with consumers—is a crucial step to get everyone on the same page.  

Presenting this information in a format that's engaging and, therefore, actually gets read is definitely challenging. We experimented with new format for our 2013 Transparency Report, but I think we still have room to evolve, especially as the amount of information we share increases. It's good to share information, but, especially for a product with a somewhat mystifying supply chain like coffee, I think that information has to be presented in a way that  actually makes it useful to consumers. I really like the visual approach of this transparency report from 49th Parallel, a coffee roaster in Vancouver. Consider this an inspiration for what's to come!

As I dig into the work required to deliver what I've been talking about with our carbon and transparency reports over the next few weeks, I'm going to take a short break from these regular blog posts so I can return with some awesome material. Talk to you soon!

Meredith
One aspect that's really appealing about the sustainability-as-a-checklist idea is that it's pretty easy to measure—either a coffee is certified organic or it's not. Expanding on the theme from my last post, I'd like to keep exploring the movement away from thinking about sustainability in coffee as a checklist of certifications and more as a process of movement along a continuum of continuous improvement. One aspect that's really appealing about the sustainability-as-a-checklist idea is that it's pretty easy to measure—either a coffee is certified organic or it's not.

The more we evolve our thinking about sustainability, however, the more we realize that the nuances we recognize in our own internal practices apply to our origin partners as well. This week, I'm going to give a few examples of "moving along the continuum" from the producer side and how we're going to start trying to measuring that movement in a more refined way.

I don't want to give the impression that organic certification isn't a good indication of sustainably grown coffee; it certainly can be, it's just not a perfect substitute. Take, for example, the evolution of organic certification with Moisés Herrera and Marysabel Caballero, the owners of Finca El Puente. We started buying non-organic coffee from them in 2006 and had many conversations with them over the next few years about the benefits of organic agriculture. They surprised us in 2010 by announcing that they had certified a section of the farm—having managed that section of the farm organically because of our interest. We were excited and offered to pay $0.30 more-per-pound for coffee from this section of the farm, hoping they would increase the area managed as organic in the coming years. As of the 2015 harvest, however, the size of the plot managed as organic remains the exact same as it was in 2010.

(Turns out that we're the only company of their multiple buyers who's interested in paying them more to grow organically certified coffee. Achieving and maintaining organic certification is costly, especially when those costs aren't amortized over a co-op. Moisés and Marysabel decided it didn't make economic sense for them to certify more of the farm.)

Marysabel Caballero at the washing station she and her family run in association with Finca el Puente.Here's where moving along the spectrum comes in: Since getting that portion of Finca el Puente certified organic, Moisés and Marysabel have started making their own organic fertilizer to apply to all parts of their farm. This is really great progress from a soil-health and environmental-sustainability standpoint—and something that wouldn't be captured as "movement" if we were just looking at certified acreage.

We have a similar situation at the Mpemba washing station in Burundi—where we've purchased coffee from the Kazoza N'Ikawa co-op since 2012. As a relatively recent addition to the specialty coffee scene, Burundi is still lacking a lot of the infrastructure and institutional knowledge necessary for good coffee production—including access to and information about organic inputs for fertilizer. In other words, a producer in Burundi interested in getting organic certification would basically have to build and operate an organic fertilizer operation in order to get enough inputs for their farm.

Despite this challenge, the farmers of Mpemba asked if we could help them get started on the path to more-sustainable agricultural practices by starting an organic composting operation. With funds raised by the 2013 Holiday Blend and continued support from our Seeds program, Counter Culture organized an organic agriculture workshop and helped the co-op purchase goats and pigs for organic compost inputs. In this case, the farmers at Mpemba are making great strides towards more-sustainable agricultural practices, whether or not those efforts result in eventual organic certification.

So, if we're going to move away from the organic/not-organic dichotomy, how do we measure where a coffee is at on a spectrum of sustainability? Having good communication within our supply chain and visiting our producing partners is helpful in determining where a particular coffee falls, but those still result in a subjective assessment. We've been looking for a more-objective way to measure how sustainably a coffee is grown and recently settled on the use of Root Capital's Environmental Scorecard. Through answering a series of questions about topics like water and agrochemical use, the scorecard rates the environmental practices of an operation on a color scale. We're starting to roll out the use of the scorecard with Coffee Buyer Tim Hill's visit to Papua New Guinea next month, and we're excited to see where this leads us in our assessment of sustainability in coffee!

Meredith
Woodberry Kitchen's Spike Gjerde on our 2009 Origin Field Lab to Nicaragua. Congratulations to Woodberry Kitchen's Spike Gjerde for his 2015 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic!

We work with some of the best restaurants in the country—restaurants run by folks who understand and appreciate the importance of quality coffee as an integral ingredient in a dining experience. We're proud of these relationships and the dedicated people who work hard to make sure that the coffee at the end of a delicious meal elevates the experience.


We're looking for people to join our field operatives street team in North Carolina and Northern California: share your passion for coffee and to help to promote Counter Culture to grocery shoppers! Prospective team members should possess a strong enthusiasm for customer service—and a desire to learn more about coffee and pass this knowledge on to other coffee fans.

Please apply if you love Counter Culture, love chatting with people about coffee, and have a flexible schedule—and you want to earn a little extra money and win prizes! Training will be provided. For more information, click here.

 

*All applicants must complete the questionnaire below.



Click here to see this photo set on Flickr.

Our annual Origin Field lab trip is an opportunity for  Counter Culture wholesale customers to learn about coffee cultivation in an immersive environment. We host this lab, in part, because we recognize that the dedicated professionals preparing our coffees for the end consumer can reach people directly with the knowledge and information they get from the experience.

The 2015 Origin Field lab included two Counter Intelligence instructors, two Counter Culture staffers, two Culinary Institute of America folks, and a handful of awesome coffee people from Counter Culture accounts Little Skips, Midtown Scholar Bookstore, Peregrine Espresso, Rex NYC, and Washington, DC's Tryst.

The lab addressed the complexities of coffee farming in general—and, in particular, in Honduras—and with on-site experiences from farm to port.

Our group was lucky enough to spend the better part of a week with Moisés Herrera and Marysabel Caballero of Finca el Puente in Marcala, Honduras. Moisés and Marysabel welcomed us into their home, nursed one of us back to health, fed us (over + over again), and, often, helped to make certain that our group had what we needed and got where we needed to go. Huge thanks to both of them!

We were also fortunate enough to learn from coffee farmers, co-op representatives, exporters, port operators, and so on.
Slingshot Coffee's Jenny Bonchak took second place at the 2015 US Brewers Cup competition!1. Why do you compete?

I compete because it's a big part of my coffee journey! I admit that I'm unabashedly competitive, but it definitely goes way beyond that. I know that competing is a great way to make me a better coffee person—continually improving my palate, thinking even more critically about coffee than I already do—and at the same time, I have a lot of fun learning through preparation and the actual competition.

2. How much work goes into it?

An indescribable amount of work goes into competing. That is, if you want to get the most out of the experience. I have been a coach for another Southeast Regional/US brewers cup competitor for the past three years, so I did have a slight advantage knowing what I was getting myself into. Even then, it was so much different being on the other side! But, all in all, I'd definitely do it again. I loved it.

3. What coffee did you use at the US Coffee Championships and why?

I'm so in love with the coffee I used, and its story really resonated with me, which is why I chose it. The coffee I used was a from a husband-wife team of growers in Jurutungo, Panama, named Jose and Ailenne Gallardo. It's a long story, but the Gallardos sent a random 5lb sample of their '13-'14 Gesha to Counter Culture with barely any information in the package. A few days later, Ailenne sent an email to Tim Hill at Counter Culture to introduce themselves and give more info about their farm and the coffee they sent. They're not well known in the specialty-coffee world; they don't have a name for their farm; they have only been growing this coffee for 3 years. It's insane! But they had so much determination to grow exceptional coffee, and they were so willing to be receptive to suggestions on how to improve in the '14-'15 harvest. And improve they did! The coffee I ended up using was harvested in January 2015 and got to me 10 days before the competition. But, when I cupped it, I knew it was the one. It was juicy and floral and sweet ... and everything that reminds me of my favorite season, summertime. It was a fantastic coffee in every way. I can't wait to brew this coffee again!

4. Who do you learn from/who inspires you?

I truly have learned so much from my coffee crush (and husband), Jonathan Bonchak. I'm continually inspired by how he thinks about coffee, how he tastes coffee, and how he presents coffee to new coffee enthusiasts and industry veterans alike. He's such an incredible coffee professional an all-around stellar human. And, of course, there are so many incredible books and articles from lots of coffee professionals for whom I have so much respect, and those are great learning tools. I am so lucky to have Counter Culture as a partner for Slingshot, and I feel like I've gleaned a ton not just from classes, but from simply being able to taste different coffees with some of the best palates out there. There's so many more people I want to meet and have coffee with ... someday it'll happen!

5. What is the biggest challenge in competing?

The biggest challenge in competing is learning to trust your instinct of when to be confident and when to be critical. 

Bonus: Do you get nervous when competing?

I was nervous ... it was my first time competing! But I do enjoy public speaking, so that helped to calm those butterflies a bit.